As a parent, I believe it’s my primary responsibility to teach my kid about sex and sexuality, and I often wonder about how we’ll approach the topic. What I believe now about sex and sexuality is completely different from what I was raised to believe, and my personal experience of becoming sexually active is not one I would want for anyone. I would like to pass on a feminist, sex-positive ethic of sexuality that prioritizes making informed choices, being comfortable with one’s body and sexuality, and seeing them as one’s own, not belonging to anyone else. The problem is, I have no personal experience with such an approach to sex and am still working through the effects of a sex-negative religious upbringing that made me feel ashamed of my body and my sexuality. I have no model for how to raise a child like this. I think in a lot of ways I still have hangups about sex as something shameful and dirty, and I don’t know how I’m going to teach my child that sex, if one wants to have it, can be a healthy, normal part of adult life (and yes, teen life too, though preferably later in adolescence than sooner!) when I myself don’t quite believe it.
My husband and I were both raised to believe sex before marriage is a sin, and a really serious one. Same with masturbation (always, always a sin). Anything you did with someone you might not end up married to was considered robbing your future spouse and the future spouse of the person you were doing it with. No pressure! And there was no sex ed whatsoever for most people; I had some sex ed because, unlike most kids at our church, I was in public school. In most families, any information about anything related to sex was considered an invitation for kids to “fall into temptation.” Dating wasn’t allowed – you had to have a parent-approved courtship. The philosophy was: don’t even think about sex until marriage, get married young, have kids young, and then everything will be fine with your marriage and sex lives. Wonderful advice.
We did kiss before marriage, and you know, made out some, but that was it – and that made us rebels in our circles! And we’ve only ever kissed each other, which I only recently realized is just very weird.
Funny enough, a lot of couples raised like we were have trouble transitioning into being sexually active once they’re married. It took us several months to be able to have PIV sex. It sucked (not the sex, that was good – the wait) – and it still took years after that to really get to a comfortable place with sex. And of course we never told anyone about the trouble we were having; thanks to being raised to think of sex as a completely taboo topic, the idea of talking about our sex lives with anyone was beyond mortifying.
I strongly suspect our difficulties were far from atypical. It’s an unspoken problem in a lot of churches that women in particular have a very tough time switching, overnight, from “sex is dirty and must be avoided at all costs” to “sex is good and normal and awesome and we should do it all the time.” For example, in the book Real Sex, Lauren Winner gives the example of a friend of hers who was still a virgin after a year of marriage, because his wife couldn’t adjust psychologically to suddenly being sexually active. It can take years for some women to become comfortable with being sexual and to have satisfying sex lives, and some never really do. Men in these communities are also negatively affected by teachings that treat sex as shameful and dirty, and have trouble accepting and expressing their sexuality before and after marriage, though the effects often take different forms than they do for women – for example, intense shame over being unable to refrain indefinitely from masturbating or viewing porn, and hangups that encourage the sexual objectification, coercion, assault, and even rape of female sexual partners.
Of course, this isn’t just an issue between men and women in straight marriages. When you try to control people’s sexuality by purposefully denying them information about sex and suppressing any honest discussion of sex, it can cause problems for people of any gender, and any sexual orientation. Even for those of us who have abandoned the sex-negative ideas and churches we were raised in, the damaging effects of this kind of upbringing can last a lifetime.